The National Academy of Sciences published a report on September 1 called "Driving and the Built Environment: The Effects of Compact Development on Motorized Travel, Energy Use, and CO2 Emissions". Metro's own Andy Cotugno served on the study committee, which included many other nationally-recognized experts in the field.
The findings are important, but simple: compact urban forms, with higher residential and employment density, can meaningfully reduce CO2 emissions. Therefore, the report recommends, we should promote policies that encourage effective compact development. They also say it won't be easy, especially in places with no regional government, and no tradition of guiding development under a broad, integrated framework.
In the Portland metro area, we've been in the trenches on growth management for over 30 years. We've seen some amazing things happen as a result, including the recent miraculous spike in bicycle commuting, and the development of a rich civic infrastructure centered on neighborhoods, schools, cycling, parks, food, and other spin offs from our ongoing experiments in controlling our own destiny. These successes have gotten some modest attention. We get our share of gold stars.
On a less joyous note, we've failed to adequately address the side effects of compact urban development--most notably in the strains put on neighborhoods that lack the streets, sidewalks, parks and schools to handle the growth, and the displacement of people from inner Portland neighborhoods by rising housing prices. Then there's Vancouver, our sprawling neighbor to the north, the growth management equivalent of leaving your the front door open while the furnace burns on. They even want our money for a $4 billion, 12 lane bridge to sustain their appetite for more suburban development.
When it comes to climate change, most of the focus is on individual behavior, energy generation & distribution, and manufacturing standards like fuel economy. The national discussion should also include a new perspective, one that acknowledges that states and local communities have a choice in figuring out how they grow, and that those choices really matter (as determined by real science).
Every decision to extend roads and sewers onto farmland means more CO2. Expanding a freeway, or building a new one, means more CO2. Inadequate investment in transit and bicycle transportation infrastructure means more CO2.
Legislation to address climate change will be on center stage after health care reform makes its way to the President's desk, either late this year or early 2010. Cap and trade is a likely approach, and we'll be hearing about Waxman-Markey, Boxer-Kerry, Martin Feldstein and the proper limits and credits on CO2 emissions, along with a bunch of noise. Oregon's congressional delegation ought to punch through the wall of sound, and help draft legislation that includes meaningful incentives for local governments and metropolitan areas to implement growth management policies that reduce CO2 emissions.
In my opinion, the vehicle ought to be the roughly $40 billion in federal highway funds that are distributed annually to localities. Each metro area is required by the feds to put together a metropolitan planning organization to prioritize how to spend the money. In the Portland metro area, the projects to be funded are put together by the 17-member Joint Policy Advisory Committee on Transportation, or JPACT, and then adopted by the Metro Council. JPACT is where the real deals are cobbled together, between an assortment of local officials, key industry voices, a meaningful lobby for transit, and increasingly, cycling advocates.
It would be simple, from a policy standpoint, for Congress to add a provision to the methods for federal transportation funding that rewarded local governments for taking steps to curb CO2 emissions. The politics would be the real hurdle, given the seriously powerful and entrenched interests--but these are exactly the kinds of changes that have to be made. The incentives could be easily pegged to a cap-and-trade system for emissions credits, using objective data from ongoing scientific studies to establish the levels of reduction in CO2 emissions associated with various growth management efforts and results.
Rather than just give a city or county a big check at a press event, I would look at the experience of Portland's growth management efforts over the last 30 years, and recommend policies at the federal, state and local levels that dedicated the funds to actions that make growth management programs more effective. In my view, that includes transit, bike lanes and pedestrian safety measures, but it should also include funding for the full range of infrastructure needed to accommodate increased residential and employment density.
In practical terms, you'd have a transportation funding model that was more likely to pay for sidewalks, bike lanes, crosswalks and transit in under-served and overcrowded neighborhoods, and less likely to pay for a 12 lane bridge to Vancouver. From the standpoint of reducing CO2 and other harmful side effects of the internal combustion engine, this is what we want. Moreover, I think it's clear from our experience in Portland that the benefits of growth management go well beyond reducing our carbon footprint.
Such a measure would add some real incremental improvements in the effort to control carbon emissions. Given what scentists are telling us about the impending effects of climate change, and what it will take to forestall it, we ought to look at every opportunity.